Jimmy Carter Man of His Words: America's Thirty-Ninth President Figured out What It Takes to Be a Farmer, a Businessman, a Naval Officer, a Global Peacemaker, a Diplomat and a Champion of the Poor and Hungry. So How Does He Make a Living? He's a Writer. (Cover Story)

By Kramer, Jerome V. | Book, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview

Jimmy Carter Man of His Words: America's Thirty-Ninth President Figured out What It Takes to Be a Farmer, a Businessman, a Naval Officer, a Global Peacemaker, a Diplomat and a Champion of the Poor and Hungry. So How Does He Make a Living? He's a Writer. (Cover Story)


Kramer, Jerome V., Book


Wicked, the photographer says. Excellent. Just one more roll. "Aw, come on, man," says Jimmy Carter. "That's what you said the last time." But Carter's game: He's got a new book, Christmas in Plains, to promote. Besides, his mind has moved on: Sizing up the crew's gear, he makes the casual observation that this bunch that's descended on his Plains, Georgia, office has no digital equipment. Someone starts to explain--the way one might explain body piercings to an elderly aunt--that digital apparatus isn't really that advanced. But Carter is gently out ahead, quickly delineating the megapixel capabilities of different manufacturers' cameras that he's already researched. "You know more about this than I do," the photographer says. "No, I don't," Carter says, puncturing the flattery. "No, I don't." But he has done his homework. If there's one thing about this seventy-seven-year-old student, it's that he always does his homework.

Carter's asking photography questions because he's an accomplished carpenter with a full woodworking setup in his garage, and figures there might be yet another book in documenting pieces of furniture he makes. "The key to the book," he says, "would be that I took the photographs, I made the furniture, I designed the furniture." When someone suggests that he could hire a photo assistant, there's a brief pause. "An assistant," he says flatly.

"You can't do everything," says the photographer.

"He can," says Carter's Plains office manager, Crystal Williams--the quip of someone who has worked with Carter for fifteen years. So Carter would have to develop expertise in another area, learn every side of another problem. Another day, another project--and, by no coincidence, another book. That's just how Jimmy Carter likes it.

Carter Country

Jimmy Carter won after all.

The Christian populist who ascended so magnificently to the White House in 1977 only to be swept out by a Ronald Reagan landslide four years later has become an unparalleled global statesman and troubleshooter; few figures on the political landscape elicit more consistent and almost wistfully positive reaction. With worldwide acclaim for his reinvention of the post-presidency, most of Carter's visibility comes from projects out of the Carter Center, which he and wife Rosalynn founded in 1981. The complex, with a staff of 150, is located east of the asphalt blur of Interstate 75/85 that cuts vertically through Atlanta. Both Jimmy and Rosalynn work there about a week a month.

But while Atlanta is the home of the Carter Center, Plains--120 miles south and a world away--remains the home of the Carters.

A thriving town of around 600 while Jimmy and Rosalynn were growing up, Plains is pure southwest Georgia: pecan groves and farmland, the razor buzz of countless unseen insects, red clay and black, ever-present gnats. This is Carter Country, meaning not just that there are a few ghosts of the four-year Carter administration here, like little brother Billy Carter's filling station ("No Gas" says a Magic Markered sign taped to a pump) or a "Smiling Peanut" sculpture that looks like it's on permanent loan from a parade. Rather, this is the Christian landscape that made Jimmy Carter into the man--the farmer, the businessman, the naval officer, the state senator, the governor, the president, the post-president--that he became. When the Carters left Washington in 1981, they chose to return here. "A lot of people were shocked by that," says Steven Hochman, director of research at the Carter Center. (Carter says Hochman knows him better than Rosalynn in some ways, and that's saying something.) "But he had a home," Hochman says. "That was his home."

Jimmy and Rosalynn live in the modest house they built in 1961, but this late August morning, Carter is sitting on the screened-in front porch of the Archery, Georgia, house--now overseen by the National Park Service--where he spent his youth from 1928 to 1941, when he graduated high school.

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Jimmy Carter Man of His Words: America's Thirty-Ninth President Figured out What It Takes to Be a Farmer, a Businessman, a Naval Officer, a Global Peacemaker, a Diplomat and a Champion of the Poor and Hungry. So How Does He Make a Living? He's a Writer. (Cover Story)
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